Capillary Exchange

The primary purpose of the cardiovascular system is to circulate gases, nutrients, wastes, and other substances to and from the cells of the body. Small molecules, such as gases, lipids, and lipid-soluble molecules, can diffuse directly through the membranes of the endothelial cells of the capillary wall. Glucose, amino acids, and ions—including sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride—use transporters to move through specific channels in the membrane by facilitated diffusion. Glucose, ions, and larger molecules may also leave the blood through intercellular clefts. Larger molecules can pass through the pores of fenestrated capillaries, and even large plasma proteins can pass through the great gaps in the sinusoids. Some large proteins in blood plasma can move into and out of the endothelial cells packaged within vesicles by endocytosis and exocytosis. Water moves by osmosis.

Bulk Flow

The mass movement of fluids into and out of capillary beds requires a transport mechanism far more efficient than mere diffusion. This movement, often referred to as bulk flow, involves two pressure-driven mechanisms: Volumes of fluid move from an area of higher pressure in a capillary bed to an area of lower pressure in the tissues via filtration. In contrast, the movement of fluid from an area of higher pressure in the tissues into an area of lower pressure in the capillaries is reabsorption. Two types of pressure interact to drive each of these movements: hydrostatic pressure and osmotic pressure.

Hydrostatic Pressure

The primary force driving fluid transport between the capillaries and tissues is hydrostatic pressure, which can be defined as the pressure of any fluid enclosed in a space. Blood hydrostatic pressure is the force exerted by the blood confined within blood vessels or heart chambers. Hydrostatic pressure is the force that drives fluid out of capillaries and into the tissues, a process called filtration.

Osmotic Pressure

The net pressure that drives reabsorption—the movement of fluid from the interstitial fluid back into the capillaries—is called osmotic pressure. Whereas hydrostatic pressure forces fluid out of the capillary, osmotic pressure draws fluid back in. Osmotic pressure is determined by osmotic concentration gradients, that is, the difference in the solute-to-water concentrations in the blood and tissue fluid. A region higher in solute concentration (and lower in water concentration) draws water across a semipermeable membrane from a region higher in water concentration (and lower in solute concentration).

As we discuss osmotic pressure in blood and tissue fluid, it is important to recognize that the formed elements of blood do not contribute to osmotic concentration gradients. Rather, it is the plasma proteins that play the key role. Solutes also move across the capillary wall according to their concentration gradient, but overall, the concentrations should be similar and not have a significant impact on osmosis. Because of their large size and chemical structure, plasma proteins are not truly solutes, that is, they do not dissolve but are dispersed or suspended in their fluid medium, forming a colloid rather than a solution. The plasma proteins suspended in blood cannot move across the semipermeable capillary cell membrane, and so they remain in the plasma. As a result, blood has a higher colloidal concentration and lower water concentration than tissue fluid. It therefore attracts water.

This diagram shows the process of fluid exchange in a capillary from the arterial end to the venous end.

Figure 1. Net filtration occurs near the arterial end of the capillary since capillary hydrostatic pressure (CHP) is greater than blood colloidal osmotic pressure (BCOP). There is no net movement of fluid near the midpoint since CHP = BCOP. Net reabsorption occurs near the venous end since BCOP is greater than CHP.